At the heart of the Flint tragedy is the unaccountability of corporate power. That power and that unaccountability were on display Sunday night in Flint when the two Democratic candidates for president vied to out-pander each other to the beleaguered Michigan city. The necessary condition for corporate power that is unaccountable, however, is a political and social system that has been stripped of democracy.
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have made long careers of catering to the needs of big business. Clinton–from her days as First Lady when she supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through her tenure as a U.S. senator, as Secretary of State under Barack Obama and finally as a big-ticket guest speaker—has hobnobbed with and shilled for the wealthy and megawealthy of America, as just a look at her list of campaign contributors attests. And for all his “socialist” firebrand posturing, Sanders has, over the course of his 25 years in the House and Senate, voted with his colleagues in the big-business Democratic party over 90 percent of the time.
The Flint Democratic debate saw the two candidates variously promise all new service pipes for the city’s homes, in fact for homes all over the country; reimbursement for water bills; an improved education system for Flint, in fact for the whole country, and the firing of all state and federal employees who had knowledge of the problem with the water and did not reveal it. Each promise received applause from the deserving local audience, and each promise will be broken should either Clinton or Sanders win election. Prepared questions from the audience demonstrated the deep skepticism the American electorate increasingly holds for the words of politicians. These questions received applause as enthusiastic as the gilded responses. There is a contradiction here.
The American people are learning, in huge numbers, that the political establishment, including the present field of contenders for the White House, is not to be trusted. As capitalism has concentrated more wealth in fewer hands and left more Americans behind, those in power have proven themselves incapable of and uninterested in responding to the people’s needs. The country offers no better example of that than Flint. At the same time, the people of Flint, and Americans generally, are left with no apparent alternative to the traditional source of civic hope, the ballot box. There are many “lessons of Flint,” but perhaps the ultimate lesson to be taken from the debacle is that the ballot box has been rendered irrelevant.
An excellent article by ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis recaps a 2012 Michigan referendum that Governor Rick Snyder and his administration wantonly ignored. In essence, the article draws a chalk outline around the body of democracy in the state and, by extension, the country.
In 2011, a newly elected Governor Snyder signed into law legislation that gave even greater authority to the “emergency managers” the state had been using to control financially strapped cities as well as the Detroit public school system. Already powerful—authorized to sell off public assets, for instance—and wholly unaccountable to the electorate, under the new law emergency managers would now have the authority to modify the terms of collective bargaining agreements. Also, the legislation set earlier criteria for the state’s intervention in the affairs of municipalities.
The anti-democratic nature of the emergency manager law angered the people of Michigan. A petition to put the law up for a referendum garnered 225,000 signatures, and the referendum itself rejected the law with a 53 percent majority. What happened next is an object lesson in how far we have traveled down the road to tyranny.
The state legislature, supported by the Snyder administration, simply replaced the rejected law with a new one. Here is MacGillis’s account of this act of contempt for the will of the people:
“The replacement differed in some particulars—it gave local elected officials the right to propose alternatives to an emergency manager’s cuts, if they saved as much money, and to vote to remove him or her by a two-thirds vote (though only after 18 months.) But it retained the main elements of the rejected law, such as the power to modify union contracts and sell off local assets. The tweaks would only apply to future emergency managers, not the ones already governing cities and school systems. And the legislature attached a small budget appropriation to the new law, which made it impervious to referendum.”
“Tyranny” is a dramatic word, but I use it judiciously. Rick Snyder is himself not an imposing figure, not an embodiment of the tyrant. In fact, he is a self-described “nerd.” But Snyder is not the tyrant. He is a functionary. Emergency managers like Darnell Earley (formerly Flint’s emergency manager) are functionaries. However, they serve a corporate-capitalist logic, and an oligarchic elite, that are every bit as tyrannical as a cruel dictator. The people of Flint, like the people of Detroit and the people of a thousand deindustrialized cities and decimated rural communities abandoned by capital, represent nothing more to this ruling logic than a superfluous class. Without prosperous work, they are an unproductive class, generating only the meager capital of their taxes and the hollow wealth of their debt.
It is for this reason that the campaign promises of functionaries like Clinton and Sanders will be broken. They are promises being made to people who have already been sacrificed, whose cities and homes and children have long since been written off.
The CNN cameras have left Flint. As I write this, the voting is underway in the Michigan primaries, and I suspect we will be hearing less about Flint and its tainted water in the national media. Washington will not replace anybody’s pipes. If it can get away with it, Lansing will not be replacing anybody’s pipes either. Urban schools will continue to decay physically and academically. More emergency managers will seize more cities, more pensions will be looted. And the class of the sacrificed will continue to grow. Some who have been sacrificed will continue to hope against reason and will vote for Clinton or Sanders. And some, white and angry, will reject reason outright and vote for the demagogue Trump’s lies about making America great again. None, now that democracy itself has been sacrificed, will get what they voted for.
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